Image courtesy of (Markiza) via Flikr.

The islands of the Maldives are one of the most beautiful places on earth.  It has been a popular yet exotic travel destination for some time now, but beyond the palm trees and sandy beaches, how much do we know about its government and their practices? In February, a Maldives court has sentenced a young, 15-year old girl to 100 lashes of flogging in public when she turns 18.  Her crime: being a victim of rape and sexual abuse.

The culture of flogging has existed in the Maldives and other Muslim countries for a long time.  In this case, flogging is administered to women who admit to having sex outside of marriage.  Although the young girl admitted to having consensual sex with a man, she has been a victim of sexual abuse since 2009 by her father, all along while her mother concealed the abuse.  So instead of providing the young girl with counseling and help, they sentenced her to eight months house arrest and 100 public lashes.

As this individual case began to gain more and more international attention, a twitter campaign began (#OperationEndherima), followed by a petition on avaaz.org to protect the young girl and to end the practice of flogging women and children for sex outside of marriage.  If these actions aren’t taken, the petition also threatens to expose the horrors of these practices via travel magazines, trying to pressure the Maldives government into action.  Would you want to go to an island where flogging is featured in its travel brochure?  So far, over 2 million people have signed it.  That is more than twice as many tourists that visited the Maldives in 2012.

Avaaz claims to be “the campaigning community bringing people-powered politics to decision-making worldwide”.  They organize the signing of petitions, funding media campaigns, emailing, calling and lobbying governments, and organizing “offline” protests and events.  However, the simplest thing for the average citizen to do is to quickly sign an online petition on a website or social media network such as Avaaz.  How effective are these signatures alone?

Sure, 2 million signatures is impressive, but these signatures do not have much immediate impact.  What does have immediate impact is the threat to damage the reputation of the Maldives as a tropical travel destination, a main source of their income and economy.  By creating an online petition that can be seen and read worldwide, national attention has been brought to the issue of female flogging in Muslim countries, specifically of this one girl.  With national attention comes media coverage and also urges politicians of other countries and the government of the Maldives to take action.

Avaaz boasts at least seven successful petitions and campaigns in 2012 with concrete results.  For example, after another 15 year old girl, Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban in Pakistan, nearly one million people called on the government to fulfill the girl’s dream of education for all children.  Only one month later, the Pakistani government officially launched a stipend program for 3 million poor children to receive education.  And this is just one example of how online campaigns and petitions like Avaaz have made a difference.

So even though one signature may not seem like it is changing the world, it is one way to contribute to a greater cause of global attention and education on issues that have long been overlooked and not talked about.  Time will tell if the 15 year old girl will receive justice and if women will begin to be treated more humanely in the Maldives.


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